Tuesday, 10 June 2014

ANCIENT TIMES- Shiraz and Ahvas, Iran


A few weeks ago, while we were in Yazd, we had one of the fairly common phone calls we receive in Iran, from a women who knew us, but we couldn’t recall who she was, or understand her very easily. We did understand that when we came to Shiraz, she would love to host us in her house and show us around the sights. So, before we left Bushehr for Shiraz, we called this lovely woman, Fattaneh, and she and her family welcomed us into her home like old friends. It ended up we had never met, but she was the mother of the kind man who had tried to fix our camera for us in Chabahar!

We were fascinated to learn on arrival that they were Baha’i people- the first we had ever met. We had visited the Baha’i Temple in Sydney, and the one in Delhi , which is apparently the most beautiful in the entire world, but didn’t know a lot about them. They are a peace loving lot, wanting to get all along with all other people and religions, are against war, and originated in Iran- a fact we didn’t know.
There used to be around one million Baha’i in Iran before the revolution, but now because they are treated badly, their temples have been closed down, and it’s forbidden for them to gather or pray, many have chosen the time-consuming route of travelling to Turkey, and waiting for the UN to send them to a different country to start a new life. It’s an understandable choice, since in Iran they are not allowed even to attend university. They have their own university, but the courses aren’t recognized, and they can’t get a job in their field of education. Eighty four Baha’i are presently in jail in Iran for participating a public praery meeting.

Bahá'u'llá, the Baha'i faith's messianic figure

Despite the obstacles they faced in their lives, the family was a very happy one, and typically for Iran, they loved talking and spending time together, especially over a meal.

We happened to arrive the day before one of the most important days in the Baha’i year, but because of the secrecy of their meetings we weren’t allowed to attend. That evening, we stayed at home catching up on internet, when the family called and said they were coming to get us. They were having such a good time, and felt sorry that we couldn’t be a part of it, so they agreed that we should join the party. It was a great night, with a lot of music and laughter. We were lucky enough to hear a young girl play the santour, a traditional instrument we hadn’t seen before, and later a very accomplished musician treated us to new and traditional music on his guitar and violin. It was very special, and we were grateful they had let us in. Of course, we could not take photos- such gatherings are highly illegal.

They were all very enthusiastic about showing us their “beautiful” city. All people in Iran rave about the beauty of Shiraz, but as far as we saw, it was just another big city, albeit with more trees and flowers in the streets. Most of the plants were in flower, so there was a lovely smell everywhere we went. Shiraz is famous for the amount and quality of its parks, and the first day saw us visit Eram Gardens, a big botanic garden type place, which was full of people due to the spring time flowers being out in a lovely display.

Eram Gardens, Shiraz

Blooms, Eram Gardens, Shiraz

Friendly turtle, Eram Gardens, Shiraz

Flowering pomegranate, Eram Gardens, Shiraz

Other sights we visited around the city included Affifabad Gardens, another attractive garden, although looked after by the army and not quite as perfectly manicured as Eram. Inside was the most extensive and interesting armoury museums we have ever seen. A huge show of old and newer weapons (mostly Persian made, but also Russian, English and German) were on display in the old underground rooms with great labels in English, so we knew what everything was. Upstairs was a gaudy and tacky representation of what the Shah’s grand palace would have looked like, complete with plastic Louis XIV style furniture from the 1960’s army renovation. The Iranians loved this part- “so beautiful”! We preferred the gorgeous tea house, decorated in tiles, paintings of legends and with traditional style seating.

Teahouse, Affifabad Gardens

Ceiling tiles, Affifabad Gardens
Floor tiles, Affifabad Gardens

Canon barrel, Affifabad Gardens

Richard and school boys being silly, Affifabad Gardens

The most magnificent sight we saw in Shiraz was the Shah-e Chareagh, a Muslim shrine dedicated to a relative of one of their imams. Iranians Shias worship 12 imams or prophets, and only one is buried in Iran, (in Mashhad). But there are many shrines dedicated to the family members of the imams. This building is by far the most impressive Muslim monument we have seen in Iran- maybe anywhere. A huge place set around a central courtyard, the interiors were a glittering blur of mirrors and colour. Every surface was covered in detailed mosaic mirrors, and with the towering roof also plastered with dazzling bling, and the result was very impressive. Unfortunately, we were forbidden to take our cameras in, and were dismayed to see many Iranians snapping away with their mobile phones.

One and only photo, Shah-e Chareagh with Shiraz host

Of course, the main thing we wanted to see around Shiraz was Persepolis (Takht-e Jamshid in Persian), possibly the biggest tourist draw card in all of Iran. Iranians love the old kings of Iran, and the once grand city of Persepolis was their crowning glory- a series of palaces built by Achaemenid Empire in about 500BC, and added onto by various kings through the ages to celebrate the greatness of the kingdom. Grand staircases, massive pillars, carvings of people from different nations lining up to offer gifts to the king, huge statues of winged bulls- it really must have a magnificent sight, especially with its once remote mountain setting. Today there isn’t much left, compared for example, with Egypt’s most popular temples, but it’s a very important historical place for Iranians, and we were glad to see it. We later saw many impressive finds in a splendid exhibition at the National Museum in Tehran- this was almost as interesting as the site itself! We were very happy we’d made the effort to wake up early and get to Persepolis before the hordes of tourists that were pouring off the buses when we left. We were very surprised with the ease with which we travelled to the site, with very cheap share taxis and buses ferrying people to and from Shiraz, with no overcharging or scams. Quite amazing for such a popular tourist site.

Another fantastic place the family took us to was Ghalat- a historic village about one hour or so from Shiraz. The production involved in preparing for the day’s outing was incredible, and the car was so packed when we left, it seemed we were moving house. We were to appreciate the effort later in the day, though, when we reclined on mats and pillows and played backgammon after a delicious picnic meal by the small river. Ghalat is very popular with Shirazis, especially on Fridays when we were there, but we loved the crowds enjoying themselves, especially the many groups of musicians playing and dancing and having such a fun time. The old town was gorgeous and photogenic, with old dwellings, some falling down and some tastefully restored around every corner. We made the requisite trek up through the walnut forest to see the huge waterfall supplying the picturesque stream running through the village.

Nice old falling down buildings, Galat

"Gum"tree (chewing gum!)

Lovely old ruined town of Galat

Musicians, Galat

Car packed with everything but the kitchen sink!

Moody arch, Galat

Ruined building, Galat
Archway, Galat

We enjoyed the sights we were taken to in Shiraz, but we decided, in Iran we prefer the smaller places to big cities. We hate not being able to wander around a town centre, and dislike taking taxis to far flung sights- it’s exhausting .The final straw though, was the saga to obtain our second visa extension. Everything we had read on the internet, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, and the embassy in Delhi, had told us that after our initial one month was finished we were entitled to two more visa extensions, taking us up to a total of 90 days. Apparently no one told the ignorant and rude man in the Shiraz police office. He was already in a bad mood when we arrived, yelling on the phone, shouting at the Iranian man in front of us, and when we explained what we were after, dismissed us with a wave and a grunt, and told us we shouldn’t be travelling around so much! No amount of pleading was able to change his mind not to grant us an extension. We left the office dejected and depressed. We weren’t ready to leave Iran, and hadn’t planned the next stage of our trip, with only 2 days left on our Iranian visa.

After much discussion we decided a rushed trip back to small, friendly Bushehr was in order, and the next day arrived and easily got our 30 day extension from the welcoming police officers there. They were so helpful, with one even filling out our forms for us! We left the town on a high, and confirmed our idea that small is better when it comes to Iranian towns.

Caught mid-yawn, Shiraz

Thoughtful moment, Shiraz

Shiraz man

Ahvas, Khuzestan

After being a bit disappointed with the “must see” places we’d been to in Iran, we were a bit at loss as to where to visit next. We consulted our map, and saw a town out to the west, near the Iraqi border called Ahvas that we hadn’t heard much about, found a very enthusiastic Couchsurfing host, and set off to discover what was there. What we found was a very hot, flat and huge city- the fifth biggest in Iran! And to think we hadn’t even heard of it! The reason for this is that there is very little of interest there, with no beautiful or old parts of the city. It is a massive melon growing area, and we had never seen so many giant piles of the fruit by the sides of the road everywhere. Our host was the keenest we have come across yet. He was very dedicated to his job teaching English, and loved English-speaking guests to help him improve his language skills. We were happy to oblige, and in contrast to our English teaching host in Zabol, it was nice to hear him pronouncing words properly and with good grammar, and talking with a few of his talented students. 

We were sharing his small flat with his very boisterous two children and Arab wife (her family has been in Iran 1000 years approximately, she told us!). The Arab people are a tiny minority in Iran, and by far most of them live in the south-western region near Iraq. Some Arab men in Ahvas wear a distinctive long, white dress similar to the men in Dubai called a deshdashe. We were happy to add Arabs to our list of ethnic groups we had encountered in Iran, also including Baluchis, Bandaris, Loris, Afghans and Pakistanis to mention a few. We also stayed with two other Couch surfers- from China. It was a pleasant change to talk travelling with some fellow visitors, as well as many of the usual questions from Iranians.

We were very lucky to be taken out for the day to the ancient temple site of Choqa Zanbil. In a desolate place in the middle of a dry landscape, the giant pyramid and the site was impressive more for its age (built in 1300 BC, and sacked and destroyed in 640 BC!!!), rather than what for was left there - most of it had been shipped off to the Louvre Museum by the French archaeologist who rediscovered the temple complex in 1955 after it being hidden under a giant mound for 2500 years!  A couple of weeks later we did see a few items the Iranians managed to keep in the country in the National Museum in Tehran. Some remarkable finds remained though, such as a tiny footprint set in the floor tile when it was wet, and some fascinating carved ancient writing on the brand new looking bricks at head height. It was a very important site to the ancient Elamite people, and strange sounding gods and goddesses we had never heard of were worshipped here in various temples. 

With our Couchsurfing host, and Chinese Couchsurfers, Choqa Zanbil
Ancient writing, Choqa Zanbil
Knackered on the drive home!

We combined the visit with a drive to Shush, another historical place, apparently once as grand as Persepolis. The Chinese had read in their guidebook that the castle there was very average, and wasn’t accessible inside, so we trusted them and missed out that (more high entrance fees for foreigners), and looked instead in the interesting museum and strange bee-hive shaped mausoleum over the road, which strangely enough was supposed to be Daniel’s tomb (as in Daniel and the lion in the Old Testament).

Unusual shape, Daniel's tomb, Shush

Ancient find, Shush museum

Ahvas is very near to the Iraqi border, and although things are peaceful now, during the 1980’s it was a place of terrible fighting. Most families in Iran have a male relative who died or was injured during the eight long years of the Iraq/Iran war. As well as pictures of the dead on the walls of homes, the streets are plastered with the “martyrs” pictures, often with the stern faces of the Ayatollah and president Rohani  looking down on them in a sickening attempt to justify the war and portray them as having died for their country and religion. Half a million soldiers and the same number of casualties died during this war over land, with the end result being a UN agreement that saw the borders remaining exactly the same as they were before it began. One of our Couchsurfing hosts took us to see his uncle who lost the use of his legs during the war, and we found out the Government supports the families of those killed or injured quite well (as they should). All young men must undertake military service for 2 years, although we did meet a few who had dodged it for various reasons. Generally though, it is impossible to receive a passport or driving license until the service has been completed.

Poster portraying a  "martyr"
Propaganda poster

This one shows a USA helicopter going down

Other times in Ahvas were spent finally finishing our first blog post on Iran (WIFI at the school); picnicking by the river with the enormous, raucous family; and eating falafel in a long street dedicated only to that one dish. We love how the Iranians eat falafel, stuffing as many as possible in a long roll, and then helping yourself to the dozens of variety of salads/pickles/toppings available. 

Another incident of note was the day we opted for a couple of minutes of peace and quiet outside the family home, when we were stopped by a policeman on a motorbike. He was very pleasant as he asked us some questions in Farsi, but we were concerned about being discovered to be staying in the house we were chatting outside of (Couchsurfing is officially illegal, although it is rarely a problem). After some time our host appeared, and we were slightly nervous as he and the policeman talked and looked at us. As he drove off, we asked our host if there was any problem for him, and just laughed when he said ”Oh no, he only invited you to his house for lunch!”

Time was slowly but surely running out for us in Iran, and we had to make two big decisions -a) where to go next and b) how to get there. Once we had decided Armenia would be our next destination, we tried to plan a route up north, which allow us to see a few sights without rushing too much. We decided the best thing to do would be to take a bus directly to Tehran, unfortunately missing out on dozens of interesting places in the west of Iran. This greatly disappointed us as, of course, we wanted to see everything, but three months just wasn’t enough. We realized that next time we will have another three months (inshallah!), and we can hopefully see all the places we missed out on, and revisit some of our favorites from this time.

1 comment:

  1. Base relief sculptures reminded me of being in Mamalapuram in Tamil Nadu India where i had a pad for 6 month. Its a wonder you have, or maybe you have, discovered guilds of sculptors creating status for temples. I find hanging out with artisans interesting for they are a bit more aloof then the aspirational class, but after a while open a door into a living tradition. Also really enjoyed your description of people and place along with images of those crumbling structures in contrast with those glorious spectacles of Islamic architecture.